You just brought your new guitar home, and your excitement is almost palpable. But as you sit down to play, you remember something you once heard about leveling the frets on a new guitar. You find yourself wondering: do I need to level the frets on my new guitar?
New guitars don’t need fret leveling right away. Fret leveling will become necessary over time as the instrument undergoes wear and tear from regular use.
This article will explain the practice of fret leveling and describe the signs that it’s time to level your guitar. Read on to learn whether you should level the frets on your new guitar.
Should I Level the Frets on My New Guitar?
You shouldn’t need to level the frets on your guitar “right out of the box”—that is, a need for fret leveling arises as regular use wears down a guitar’s frets. Only in rare circumstances does a guitar start defective and need fret leveling right off the bat.
What Is Fret Leveling?
Also called fret dressing, fret leveling is a process used to increase the playability of a guitar. It ensures that frets along the span of the guitar’s neck don’t interfere with one another as you play. The goal behind fret leveling is to adjust the space between the guitar string and the frets.
Many players seek a “low action” setup on their guitars. Low action means that the string is as close as possible to the fretboard while still clearing each fret when played. It can be tedious and challenging to level the frets enough to create the low action that many guitarists desire. It’s easy to go too far when trying to achieve this low action. Lowering the string so much that it doesn’t clear the frets completely decreases the guitar’s playability.
Fret leveling involves slight adjustments to the frets by filing every fret down to the same height. It’s common to focus on the entire fretboard and not individual frets when doing a leveling job.
Why Guitars Need Their Frets Leveled
Playing a guitar wears down its frets over time. As a result, the frets can begin to interfere with one another and make it more challenging to play seamlessly.
Players with worn-down frets face the annoyance of a relentless buzzing sound that reappears in each song. This buzzing happens when each fret’s top isn’t perfectly even with the other frets in the area. Regular wear can also lead to divets in the metal of each fret, which makes it challenging to accomplish specific techniques like bending.
How Does Fret Leveling Affect My Playing?
As I mentioned earlier, having uneven frets can lead to buzzing sounds. They can also make it more challenging to accomplish stylistic techniques like bending.
Having the frets leveled on your guitar will increase its playability and make it sound much smoother. This principle is especially true with a low action setup, which many guitarists prefer due to its high playability.
How To Level Guitar Frets
Leveling guitar frets is typically an 8-step process:
1. Prep the Guitar and Frets
Before you begin the filing process, it’s essential to take preliminary steps to protect your guitar. First, cover any pickups or electronics with tape. Because you’ll be filing the metal frets down, metal shavings can get inside your guitar pickups and cause problems down the road. In addition, check for loose frets and secure any that don’t seem tightly fastened to the fretboard.
You should also secure the instrument in your workspace so it won’t move as you’re working on it. The best way to secure a guitar is to clamp both the neck and body to a workbench so it can’t shift as you’re filing.
After clamping down your guitar, make sure the neck is straight; no tension should be pushing or pulling on the neck. If the neck is bowed while you level the frets, the frets won’t be level at the end of the process, so don’t forget to double-check the neck’s straightness before you begin.
2. Tape Off the Fretboard
Before you begin filing, it’s crucial to apply masking tape on the wood areas of the fretboard between each metal fret. The tape will protect the wood of your guitar’s fretboard as you work.
As you tape, be sure to leave the frets exposed. If you accidentally cover the metal with tape, you won’t be able to file the frets down correctly.
3. Mark Each Fret With a Marker
Using a sharpie or another permanent marker, draw lines down the length of each fret. These lines you make with the marker will serve as a guide showing how many of the frets have been leveled. As the marker is worn off, you’ll be able to see which frets have had metal removed from them and how many still need to be leveled.
4. Use a Leveling Bar To File the Frets Down
Leveling bars look like flat blocks of wood but with a robust aluminum finish to help the level stand up against the metal frets. Most standard leveling bars are approximately the same length as a guitar neck. Still, some are shorter to file just a few frets at a time.
Using a gentle back-and-forth motion, move the leveling bar along the length of the neck, making sure to cover the entire length of the frets evenly. If you don’t apply even pressure throughout this step, your frets will all be varying heights when you finish.
5. Mark and File the Frets Again, if Necessary
Sometimes it’s necessary to repeat steps 3 and 4 to ensure that the frets are an even height across the fretboard. You’ll have to re-mark the frets and file them with the leveling bar again until you feel the frets are all sufficiently level.
6. Round the Frets With a Crowning File
Now your frets are all even heights—but you’re not quite finished. Leaving the frets as they are after leveling can make the playing experience very uncomfortable. The freshly filed frets are sharp and can be rough on a player’s fingers. To resolve this, use a crowning file to round off the edges of each fret.
A crowning file is smaller than a leveling bar. It allows for you to work in smaller spaces and adjust each fret as needed.
It’s essential to file the frets at an angle; otherwise, you’ll create more sharp edges to interfere with playing. Applying the crowning file at an angle will ensure nice round edges on your frets when you’re finished.
7. Sand and Polish the Frets
Now that you’ve crowned the frets, you’ll gently file them one final time to make sure the metal of each fret is smooth and even. Starting with a low grit and working your way up, use sandpaper to remove any sharp lines left by the file. Then, use steel wool to give each fret a final polish.
8. Remove the Tape and Clean the Guitar
You’re almost finished! All that’s left to do now is to remove the masking tape and clean the guitar gently. You can use oil soap and a rag to clean the fretboard and remove any leftover metal shavings.
For a guided visual demonstration of the leveling process, check out this video posted by YouTube user Fabian’s Tiny Workshop:
Do I Need a Professional To Level My Guitar Frets?
Experts highly recommend that you hire a professional to level your guitar frets. Professional guitar repairmen—also called luthiers—have years of experience and know how to best adjust your frets without doing any permanent damage to the guitar.
Any mistakes made in fret leveling can negatively impact the intonation and tuning of your guitar. In the worst-case scenario, a sloppy fret leveling job may mean that you need to have your guitar refretted completely. Most would agree that it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to fretwork on a guitar.
How Long Does Fret Leveling Take?
Fret leveling can take anywhere from 2-5 hours, depending on the state of the frets, when done by a professional luthier. A guitar with extremely uneven frets often takes much longer to level than a guitar with a few uneven frets.
How Much Does a Fret Leveling Job Cost?
Most guitar luthiers will do a simple fret leveling job for approximately $100. However, more advanced fretwork may cost upwards of $200. A complete refret is significantly more expensive, usually quoted around $300.
Although this may sound expensive, most experts agree that hiring a professional to do any fretwork is worth the money, especially when the alternative is attempting to do it yourself.
Fret leveling is almost always unnecessary for new guitars. Only after significant use and wear do guitars start to show the signs of uneven frets. Because of this, it’s important not to worry about leveling your guitar’s frets unless you’re sure that uneven frets are interfering with your playing.